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Ash to ashes?

By [email protected] - 20th April 2016 - 09:47

Although Ash dieback has hogged the headlines of late, a growing number of invasive pests and diseases threaten our trees. In response, the Forestry Commission needed processes with which to address the threats in a proactive and consistent way.

In July 2013, EU LIFE+ approved funding for Observatree, a four-year project lead by the Forestry Commission on behalf of a consortium of organisations interested in the preservation of British trees. Other members include, Forest Research, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Natural Resources Wales, Fera Science Limited (formerly the Food and Environment Research Agency), the Woodland Trust, and the National Trust.

As part of this project the opportunity was seized to take advantage of an engaged public as ‘citizen scientists’, as well as the 25,000 or so individuals who work in the wider arboreal industry to generate a volume of reports that would not be possible with Forestry Commission staff alone. The data collected would still need to be scientifically useful, so a structured approach was needed, including guidance for reporters and a process to assess and prioritise reports.

Solving the problem

To capture this information, the Forestry Commission specified a solution, known as Tree Alert, to capture reports of tree diseases. Any solution would need to be comprehensive enough to capture useful information, including the species, symptoms and, of course, location, but simple enough to minimise the loss of users through the process.

Users are guided through the process, being asked a series of intelligent questions, which reflect previous answers, to help to identify the issue, including confirmation of the species as well as the key symptoms. Initially, specialist questions will identify the pests and diseases currently of most concern; not only Ash Dieback, but also Acute Oak Decline, Dothistroma Needle Blight, Phytophtora Lateralis and Asian Longhorn Beetle. In the future, and as new threats emerge, additional questions can be added to extend the usefulness of the system. Other pests and diseases, such as the Oak Processionary Moth, can be reported through a general reporting path.

A primary aim of the Observatree project is to engage the public in reporting tree diseases, with a view to encouraging wider interest in the issue of tree health. It will also create a volume of crowdsourced data that is large enough to detect tree health hotspots and temporal and spatial trends.

Enter the technology

With limited time and budget available to the project team, an innovative and efficient approach was required. Any solution needed to be ready for deployment prior to the start of the next growing season, when most of the reports are made. Engaging with specialist software developer SCISYS, which has a long track record of integrating spatial components into business and operational systems , the Tree Alert system was commissioned.

Using an Open Architecture combining a number of Open Source and existing SCISYS technologies, the project team was able to take advantage of functionality already available. The basis of the site uses the Joomla! content management system as an application framework … software with which the Forestry Commission IT department already had some familiarity.

This application uses OpenLayers as the mapping platform, using OS On-Demand WMS for map delivery. OpenLayers was selected for its maturity as a product, and as it supports a wide range of map sources. On this basis, the Forestry Commission could be confident that future changes in source maps can be accommodated. Looking further ahead, OpenLayers provides the ability to scale cloud-based operations without the limitation of CPU-based licensing models.

The functionality of OpenLayers is enhanced by SCISYS’ Digiright … a component that allows user to efficiently capture location information including the position of a tree. This also aligns with the UK Government strategy to encourage the use of Open Source technologies in place of commercial proprietary products wherever possible.

Reporting process

As tree disease identification can be a tricky process, reporters are asked a series of questions to ensure that they have correctly identified the species of tree, and to capture the relevant symptoms they have observed.

As part of this process the location of the tree is captured. Contact information is also captured to allow the team of volunteers and scientists to confirm or expand on information submitted. Any solution would need to capture a location for a reported issue to within a few metres, to allow investigating scientists to quickly locate the problem trees.

An initial examination of the submitted report is made by a Forest Research scientist, who first decides whether the report is credible and assigns it a priority depending on the symptoms reported and the location vis-a-vis existing knowledge of the disease and its distribution.

Reports that call for further information are passed to a team of trained volunteers who use the contact details supplied to get back in touch with the reporter. Armed with any additional information, the completed reports are then passed to a scientist for assessment and possible further investigation on the ground.

The captured information is also recorded in Forestry Commission’s existing plant health geospatial database. This allows further statistical analysis and the opportunity to track the spread of particular pests and diseases across the country over time.


The TreeAlert website allows the general public to report sightings of pests and diseases including an accurate location and observed symptoms so that investigations can be prioritised and conducted efficiently. The validation built into the reporting process helps reporters accurately identify target tree species and capture relevant information about symptoms. In particular, the capture and processing of spatial information will enhance the strategic reporting, decision-making and operational response. To date, more than 500 reports have been submitted, providing a valuable resource in the fight against invasive pets and diseases.

Roger Coppock, Head of Corporate and Forestry Support at the Forestry Commission is in no doubt as to the efficacy of this new resource. “The information gathered on the TreeAlert site doesn’t just allow us to investigate individual cases reported by the general public, as we can now set priorities based on risk and track the incidence of new and invasive pests and diseases. This information will prove invaluable in our understanding of their spread and help us protect our woodlands for generations to come,”

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